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Campaign 2004: Reviewing the Presidency and past office holders

WASHINGTON - The Presidency, like any sustainable complex system under a single guiding office, is more important than any one president.

But for Indian country, a small constituency within the U.S. political system, but one whose moral presence and legal standing far outweigh its demographic impact - for Indian country, the character of single presidents may prove a more important factor than for any other group of citizens in the country. From character issues forged by formative experience, philosophy and political factors alike, a president may favor tribes to a degree their numbers would never predict. Or from the same character issues, they may stand down from addressing difficult tribal positions that bear on no larger public constituency.

Contrary to what one might expect at a time in the national life when the trend toward larger, more complex systems seems never-ending, presidential character may be more important for tribes than ever before. The first presidential administrations dealt with Indians by treaty, a form of direct negotiation with undoubted sovereigns. As the newly founded United States settled into nationhood, tribes were increasingly betrayed into a second-class, barely there sovereignty and an invisible citizenship meant to prepare the way for their extinction.

Tribes rescued themselves from extinction, not without a series of indispensable assists from the U.S. Supreme Court. In rescuing their sovereignty as well, tribes have relied on their own assertiveness and the executive responses of presidents. Though a political process as complicated as U.S. Democracy seldom works exactly the same way twice, quite often at least the reckoning decisions of presidents on Indian and tribal issues have been reflected in Congress after the fact.

Beginning with this preview and over the ensuing months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, Indian Country Today will examine the Presidency and the presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush in terms of their Indian-specific decisions and the influence they exerted on behalf of, or in opposition to, Indian and tribal interests.

Nixon is still revered by many in Indian country for decisions that helped to lay a foundation for modern tribal self-governance within the federal context. In addition, his contributions to the economic development of reservation communities continue to serve his memory well.

The Gerald Ford administration presided over passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, a landmark in modern Indian-specific legislation.

Jimmy Carter either diluted the intent of the 1975 law, or fit the Republican-themed document into his Democratic administration in the most functional way possible, depending on one's viewpoint.

Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush brought about a pronounced downturn in Indian funding. And within Indian country, the question of whether their emphasis on self-sufficiency made up for it remains a live one.

Under Bill Clinton, Indian country regained its footing within the Presidency. Among many other highly-significant decisions, Clinton issued an executive order that made tribal perspectives a priority within all federal departments.

The court is still out on George W. Bush, whose administration has been dominated in its Indian dealings by the long-disputed trust funds management reform process.

Next month: Richard Nixon.